Sunday, September 16, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Weary Blues

Recorded May 11, 1927 
Track Time 3:02
Written by Artie Matthews
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8519
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes 


Time for a hot one! Louis Armstrong Hot Seven's are some of the finest recordings jazz has to offer but on the whole, the tempos are mostly on the medium-to-slow side. They opened with a bang with a romp on "Willie the Weeper" but then took it way down for "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy Blues." "Alligator Crawl" has more of a walking pace but isn't exactly a barn-burner. Louis's mastery on "Potato Head Blues" can cause one's blood pressure to rise but the tempo is more lightly rocking than blood pumping.


That all changes with "Weary Blues." As I've hopefully demonstrated in this series, everything recorded up to this point was fairly fresh for 1927, but "Weary Blues" is the first "good old good one," written by Artie Matthews and published in 1915. Unlike some of the other Hot Seven "blues-but-not-really-a-blues" numbers ("Potato Head," "Melancholy," etc.), the first strain of "Weary Blues" is very much a blues. The second part has its own set of chord changes, identical to another jazz standard, "Farewell Blues," (more on that in a minute). The second strain sometimes features "Shake it and break it and throw it against a wall" lyrics (first recorded, I believe, by Wingy Manone on his 1930 version), leading to some performances of "Weary Blues" to be dubbed "Shake It and Break It." Of course, there's another multi-strain piece floating around out there that was copyrighted "Shake It and Break It" by H. Qualli Clark and Fiscoe Louchiha in 1920 (Bechet recorded a phenomenal version) but that has no relation to the original "Weary Blues." Confused yet? Good.


(Okay, a little more confusion: a couple of years ago, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band recorded a version of "Shake It and Break It" featuring Andrew Bird that had some relation to the second "Weary Blues" strain but overall, a different melody and chord changes. Go figure.)


Yellow Nunez was the first jazz musician one to record "Weary Blues" in 1919 with the Louisiana Five (alas, not available on YouTube). It became a favorite of all the early New Orleans/Chicago bands including that perfect New Orleans/Chicago hybrid, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. But it was through the NORK that the second strain of "Weary Blues" split off and became a standard all its own. While playing "Weary Blues" live, the band hit upon a train whistle motif. According to trombonist George Bruinies, "We were playing the 'Weary Blues' one night, ao all of a sudden Rapp [clarinetist Leon Rappolo] takes a chorus, just playing to himself, man. He didn't care nothing about the people, he's high....So they  made a number out of it, the 'Farewell Blues.'" At their first recording session on August 29, 1922, the NORK--recording under the name Friars Society Orchestra--waxed their version of "Farewell Blues," based on the chord changes of the second strain of "Weary Blues":


Hot stuff! Clearly a band that had been soaking in King Oliver's sounds at the Lincoln Gardens (Louis had just joined a few weeks before that session). "Farewell Blues" took off and a number of bands recorded it throughout the 20s--check YouTube for Isham Jones, Red Nichols, Roy Smeck and more--and beyond (the song seems to be a standard in bluegrass world, as well).

But the following year, the NORK hit up Gennett's recording studios and decided to romp on the actual "Weary Blues." Maybe they wanted to dig into the blues section and offer up some different solos without resorting to the train effects. Here's how it came out:


Another hot record but keep in mind a few things, notably George Brunies's trombone solo and Leon Roppolo's lower-register work during his outing. But even after that fine recording, "Weary Blues" seemed to take a backseat to "Farewell Blues" for the next few years.

That is, until the spring of 1927 when our hero recorded not one, but two renditions of Artie Matthews' original piece--no "Shake It and Break It," no "Farewell Blues," just the "Weary Blues" of 1915. The first version was recorded as the opener of the Johnny Dodds Black Bottom Stompers Vocalion session of April 22, 1922. I've already covered the Dodds versions of "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy" in separate entries since they were both tackled again by the Hot Seven (for completeness sake, if you want to read about the history of the fourth tune recorded that day, "New Orleans Stomp," here's the link to a 2008 blog I did on that one). Here's the Dodds version:


From the outset, the band's on fire, hitting those first three chords on the nose before letting Dodds loose. One great thing about the Vocalion session is brother Baby Dodds's drums are well recorded; you can hear his bass drum from the start and he really does push things along. Most bands repeat the opening breaks the second time through but after just one 12-bar-blues chorus, we're and off and running with the solos, first Dodd's urgent clarinet and Barney Bigard's relaxed tenor. 

After those two solos, the descending three notes comes back from the beginning, acting as a springboard for Pops  to take a break featuring some of his rhythmic licks (the clarion call opening repetition of two notes comes back many times, including the start of Lester Young's "Shoe Shine Boy" solo). Louis's lead is very strong throughout the next chorus.


Then it's time for a neat transition into the second strain as the band hits stop-time accents on two-and-four while Louis rides over them with some relaxed phrasing. More and more, when I read Armstrong's own comments about music, he tends to use the word "relaxed" for things he likes, including his own music. In 1969, when he made a tape for drummer Danny Barcelona of a BBC All Stars concert from July 2, 1968, he called it "the most relax thing we've ever done."  The word also comes up in a series of beautiful letters Louis wrote to Chris Clifton, which can be read at Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives blog.  No matter the tempo, Louis always sounded relaxed and that relaxation was the key to his swinging.


Anyway, after the transition, we're firmly in the second strain. Everyone piles on for a hot ensemble chorus (though it sounds like Bigard is just holding notes). Baby Dodds really pushes with that bass drum, which oddly gets a little quieter after a few bars; did someone in the control room flag him down to ease up a bit? After the ensemble, Dodds takes a solo, sticking to his low register, as Leon Rappolo did on that New Orleans Rhythm Kings version from 1923. Next, trombonist Roy Palmer goes one step further, taking a solo that quotes George Brunies' original outing verbatim at times. That NORK record really got around....


Palmer does sound a little old-fashioned and blatty, though, especially with what comes next, a perfectly flowing, elegant, swinging chorus by none other than Earl "Fatha" Hines. Hines is a two-handed monster, driven by Dodd's four-on-the-floor drumming behind him. Hines is followed by the only man around at the time who could do so, Pops. If you remember the story, Louis wasn't supposed to be recording for another company so he attempted to conceal his style by being a bit less explosive. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't but it only takes a second to hear that tone and that phrasing and think, "Yep, it's Louis!" He sticks to one chorus, cramming it full of information, but mostly sticking in the middle register until holding a high note at the end for punctuation. The high note calls everyone and for the final ensemble chorus, he punches out a firm lead while everyone gets in on the act, Dodds making his presence felt as he did throughout the entire session (it was his name on these records, after all). A neat little arranged ending adds a little polish and shows that the fellows had worked this one through beforehand. A mighty fine record. 


But again, Louis gets the last word and I don't think I'm being biased when I say the Hot Seven version is preferable to the Dodds. Listen with me and you be the judge:


Louis's recording opens in the same fashion as the Dodds (and pretty much every other version) with the three opening notes leading into a wild break by Johnny and some fine ensemble interplay. On the Hot Seven records, Baby Dodds is more in the background than on the Vocalion discs, but the Hot Seven has the weighty Pete Briggs to holding things down on the bottom with his tuba, adding a nice drive to the proceedings (and besides, his 1, 2, 1-2-3 patterns are similar to Dodd's bass drum). One thing is different: the tempo is a little slower, still allowing the band to generate plenty of heat but overall, it's a little more, shall I say, relaxed....just the way Louis's liked it.

Louis's lead is definitely a little more enthusiastic than it was on the Dodds, but nothing crazy, as he still plays those three-repeated-quarter-notes frequently in his best Joe Oliver style. Then it's time to shine the spotlight on the rhythm section for a couple of choruses. I believe the first chorus is supposed to feature trading between Lil Hardin Armstrong's piano and Johnny St. Cyr's bass but Lil's a little lost in the mix so it's a good chance to admire St. Cyr's banjo work, both as accompanist and chordal-soloist. The next chorus features more trading, this time the front line horns chasing Briggs's tuba for a fun jaunt. 


With time for one more blues chorus, Louis finally announces his presence with a break that's positively in there. A little more jamming leads to the same stop-time transition we heard on the Dodds recording. In fact, Louis's line is almost identical to what he played two weeks earlier; yes, these men often worked on their solos and once they had something that worked, didn't bother to change it. Shhhh, don't tell the jazz purists....


At this point, the record becomes The Johnny Dodds Show and that's not a bad thing. Louis gives his clarinetist two full choruses to establish the second strain and Dodds does so completely in his chalumeau register, with that big fat tone of his shining through. Trombonist John Thomas opens on a break, holding a note for good measure before embarking on a solo over stop-time chords. It's not bad but it's a little stiff; trombonists seemed to have the hardest time adapting to Louis's relaxed swing. Miff Mole got it but he was already a virtuoso. It wasn't until Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Harrison came on the scene not long after that trombonists had new Armstrong-inspired models to emulate.


Then it's time for the main event, Louis, Louis, Louis. He takes a tricky, tension-filled ascending break before he lands up high, at which point, he really begins showing off, playing with a speedy triplet riff that seems partially based on "Twelfth Street Rag," the next tune to be recorded that day. Louis is simply light years ahead of the world, to my ears, with a solo like this. He's in the upper register, which already would have blown away the majority of trumpeters on the scene. And rhythmically, he marvelous, getting around his horn sublimely with those double-timed runs. After dazzling us for two-thirds of the solo, he plants his feet in the ground and plays some purely swinging phrases, still over that stop-time backbeat (my, my, my did he love two-and-four). 


Probably my favorite part of the entire solo is the ending when Louis works rhythmic wonders with one pitch, a concert F. At first he plays in and around the accents, never landing in the same place, until Baby Dodds catches him with his cymbals and the two join forces to create this feeling of tension that finally explodes when everyone re-enters to blow the outchorus, Dodds whipping those cymbal backbeats as he did on "Willie the Weeper," obviously inspiring Louis to great heights (literally). Briggs gets in a couple of double-timed licks, Louis gets bluesy, it's joy and euphoria the whole way out. They add a little trick ending, with Louis repeating the same two-note concert G-based phrase for six bars at the end, adding a couple of measures for good measure. On one of his private tapes made in 1951, Bobby Hackett sat with Louis, listening to these recordings. At the end of "Weary Blues," Hackett burst out in euphoria and laughter. "You like that huh?" asked Pops. How could you not?


Like most of the Hot Sevens, there's no signs that Louis ever played "Weary Blues" again in front of a recording device....until 30 years later, when he returned to the song for the landmark 4-LP project, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." This was recorded immediately after the half-baked version of "Potato Head Blues" I discussed 

here last month. I still say that version needed less of an arrangement by Bob Haggart, a few notches up in tempo and maybe another take to get everything square. But for proof that Louis and the All Stars weren't having a bad day that day, just listen to what happened next:

Wee, now that's a barn burner! I love that performance. I'm not going to argue if it's better or worse than the original but on it's own, it's pretty great. There's nothing backwards-looking about it; this is jazz of 1957. Some might miss the tuba on the bottom, the banjo, the two-beat feel, the 1927 tempo, etc. But music had changed--because of Louis--and Louis, in turn, had changed because of the music (does that make sense?). Armstrong pretty much invented the concept of swing and once the rest of the world--and it's rhythm sections--caught up with Louis, there was no sense in looking back. Louis loved 4/4 rhythm sections and whenever the All Stars had to approximate a two-beat band in the 50s and 60s, they--and Louis, to an extent--always sounded uncomfortable. So it's full steam ahead on the 1957 "Weary Blues," just as Louis wanted it. 

Everyone should know the routine by now, so there's really no surprises in the layout (though interestingly, the arrangement by Bob Haggart omits the original arranged touches such as the transitional interlude between the strains and the stop-time solos). As usual, the clarinet gets the early breaks, here taken by the one and only Edmond Hall, whose scorching breaks only make me think, "God DAMN, Edmond Hall!" 


Louis keeps it low key with his early lead, staying in the middle and making nice with front line partners Hall and Trummy Young. After two choruses of blues, the performance mimics the 1927 record by having a chorus of piano and banjo trading. Only this time, the banjo has been replaced by George Barnes's thoroughly 1957-ified electric guitar. I love Barnes but I always thought this was a bit of an odd addition. I've complained thousands of times about poor Barrett Deems being forced to play a closed hi-hat for sessions at a time, most probably because the original recordings didn't feature drums. Okay, that's fine if Haggart/Milt Gabler wanted to be purists about it...but then why add Barnes's electric guitar? Hmmmm. Anyway, Barnes's spiky lines blend well with Billy Kyle's spiky lines and all is well that ends well. 


For the next chorus, the front line trades with the rhythm section again, a la 1927, but instead of Pete Briggs's tuba, this time it's Barnes's chunky chords that provide the responses. The next chorus hands the breaks over to Pops and he responds by nailing his 1927 original before getting a little more animated with his ensemble work, ending with a perfect concluding phrase. I once had a Louis listening session with the late Joe Muranyi and Joe used to marvel--and get teary-eyed--about the "logic" of Louis's lines, how everything is so balanced and well, logical, and so perfectly thought out and executed. To which I say, amen.


Without the little stop-time interlude, the band plows ahead with the blowing strain, which is shared by the threesome of Hall, Barnes and Kyle, a neat touch. Hall keeps his ad-libs in the lower register, too, a nod to Dodds. 


But then, what's this? Louis! In the middle of the performance, Louis swarms in, opening his unexpected solo with a phrase that lands on a high Bb, higher than anything he played in 1927. He completely goes for himself, not even referencing anything he did 30 years earlier, but flowing beautifully and flexing his muscles in his best 1957 style. The highlight is when he squeezes the life out of a blue Ab, holding it and molding it into something special before going out on a high note. A great solo!


Trummy's up next, opening with a blast before a fairly relaxed outing by the usually blustery trombone master. Hall follows and again, starts off low before turning into Edmond Hall and gradually building higher and higher until he's barking and making a sounds that few other humans have ever produced, let alone clarinetists. This is followed by a great moment when Louis begins the closing ensemble with low Bb's on beats 1 and 3 and Hall responds with high Bb's on beats 2 and 4, which, if you're not paying attention, sounds like one instrument playing repeated Bb's octaves apart. 


We're now in the realm of my favorite All Stars front line of all time so I can say is close your eyes, board up the windows and let the fury wash over you. Louis plays like a human for the first chorus but they keep pounding into a second rideout (something this song naturally lends itself to) and that's when Louis heads upstairs and starts shooting the high Bb's out of his rocket launcher masquerading as a trumpet. They come one at a time, first held dramatically, then gradually stretching the beat until they come out straight quarter notes. On and on he goes, Messrs. Hall and Young in there with him all the way, creating such a head of a steam, it's entirely possible that the entire room was reduced to nothing but vapors by the conclusion. For the ending, they revisit the same repeated "trick" device, Louis hitting those same high G's as he did in 1927, rattling up to a high Bb to end on a (literal) high note. 


So Pops was still getting it done potently in 1957 but again, that's not to denigrate anything from 1927. While I was typing this, my iTunes kept running and the Hot Seven version came on. And damn, that really is a classic, classic record that belongs in a time capsule somewhere. So there's no use arguing about which one is better or lamenting that Louis never added it to his live repertoire. Three tremendous versions of "Weary Blues" exist with Louis at the helm and I don't know if global warming could stand the heat generated by any others. 


Next time, we'll cool it down and have our minds collectively blown with "Twelfth Street Rag." Til then!

1 comment:

infrogmation said...

I filled a gap by putting up a 1919 Louisiana Five version of Weary Blues on YouTube:

http://youtu.be/fdwpjhupluA

Some good archaic New Orleans downtown clarinet from Alcide Nunez (b. 1884).

Thanks for your wonderful Armstrong blog!